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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”

    


 

AIDS fight: India, Inc. tests negative
VIKRAM DOCTOR

TIMES NEWS NETWORK[ MONDAY, DECEMBER 01, 2003 12:31:33 AM ] MUMBAI: Harshada Patil, a deputy manager looking after social welfare at Bharat Petroleum Corporation (BPCL), is blunt in her description of the attitude towards HIV/AIDS of some senior corporate managers.

"They aren't really concerned because they say if some people get AIDS and die, there are plenty of other people to take their place."

According to this mindset, Indian companies, and not just public sector undertakings, are already hugely overstaffed, and anyway, if there's so much unemployment in the country that hundreds are willing to trek from Bihar to Mumbai for some measly railway jobs, what sort of impact can HIV/AIDS really have on Indian companies?

Such views should not be taken as an indication of BPCL's actual HIV/AIDS policy. In fact, the PSU giant has one of the most comprehensive corporate HIV/AIDS programmes in the country. BPCL has run extensive awareness programmes for its employees both on its prevention and to sensitise them about working with HIV positive co-workers.

Ms Patil says there is no question of such workers being asked to leave. On the contrary, full support and counselling is given to them and their families. She adds that the company's health scheme will cover the costs of their treatment even extending to anti-retroviral treatment - which few other companies do. And outside its own workforce, BPCL conducts HIV/AIDS prevention programmes in communities surrounding some of its main factories.

 

 


Few other Indian companies may go as far as BPCL, but there's no doubt that the level of HIV/AIDS awareness is far higher in the corporate world than it was as recently as two years back. On World AIDS Day then, looking for companies with proper HIV/AIDS programmes, only a few could be found like Mahindra & Mahindra,
Larsen & Toubro, Tata Group companies, Bajaj Auto, Glaxo and SAIL. Now, many others like Cadbury, Castrol, Escorts, Eveready, Godrej, Gujarat Ambuja, Hero Honda, IndianOil, Marico, Modicare, Mukand, Ranbaxy and Reliance can be added.

At a more macro level, the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) has tied up with the Global Business Coalition for HIV/AIDS (GBC) to increase awareness of this issue in the industry. The GBC also recognised the efforts of one company in particular, Tisco, with a special international award for its comprehensive programme, which stretches from its workforce to the communities surrounding
Jamshedpur and even truckers bringing products into the city.

And if all this wasn't enough, the grant by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation of $100m (later doubled to $200m), which was announced in person by Bill Gates in India , focused the industry's attention on HIV/AIDS in a way that nothing else could have. Corporate conferences have been held on HIV/AIDS, corporate heads deliver solemn speeches about it at the click of a Powerpoint resentation and as one NGO worker in the field notes, a paragraph on the company's HIV/AIDS policy has become almost mandatory in most annual reports.

"When I started in this field, I had to really persuade companies to let us conduct awareness programmes," says Nidhi Dubey, programme officer on workplace interventions at Avert, a joint project of the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), USAID and the Government of Maharashtra. "Today, we have lots of companies calling up asking us to come."

So what's the problem? Only this: The programmes may be excellent, but the reasons for their implementation still lack something. Talk to companies and it becomes clear that overwhelmingly they see HIV/AIDS as a welfare issue, a problem on the lines of drug or alcohol addiction. HIV/AIDS comes under the corporate social responsibility (CSR) area, something that its generally agreed that companies should be doing - but with the unspoken corollary, that its not imperative, because it doesn't affect the bottomline.

"Companies aren't really taking responsibility for HIV/AIDS because they still don't see it as something that could affect their productivity," says Ms Dubey. It's why the people actually dealing with the issues in companies are always the welfare officers and rarely anyone more senior - outside CII conferences, that is.

 

 


The idea that HIV/AIDS does not actually impact the bottomline is somewhat short-sighted, as proven by international experience. HIV/AIDS has been recognised to be a productivity issue since it targets exactly the most productive sections of society - sexually-active adults in the age group of 18-45. Estimates by the United Nations Development Programme suggest that HIV/AIDS has reduced the annual growth rate of GDP per capita around the world, by nearly 0.06% below what it could have been in the absence of the disease.

In the most severely affected areas like parts of sub-Saharan Africa , where nearly 8.8% of the population has the disease, the reduction in annual growth rate may be nearly 0.15%. In some industries, like South Africa 's mining industry, it's been estimated that as many as 30,000 miners are positive, out of a total workforce of 100,000.

Multinationals in South Africa are reported to be hiring three people to fill any post that becomes vacant in order to ensure that there's always someone to do the job. Add on the effects of manhours lost in taking care of sick people and less quantifiable issues like the social problems of huge number of families losing the main breadwinners, and HIV/AIDS clearly emerges as a serious productivity issue.

If Indian companies are still to see it this way, it's partly because of lack of data. India is now estimated to be the country with the second-largest population of HIV positive people and there are plenty of projections for how bad it could get - one of the few work-related estimates done by a doctor at Tata Tea suggests that in ten years time 2,280m manhours could be lost because of the disease.

But there is still little hard data on the workplace impact of the disease, to some extent a result of the strategy chosen early on in the campaign against HIV/AIDS in India of focusing on the most high-risk groups.

"People have mostly looked at groups like truck drivers and commercial sex workers, but not the workplace," points out VR Jathar, director, CSR at the Bombay Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI). That's why when the BCCI decided to take up this issue, one of the first things it did was to commission a study from PriceWaterhouse simply to see how many companies have HIV/AIDS
policies at all, and general corporate attitudes to the issue. The study, conducted across HRD managers, welfare officials and some union officials as well, is yet to be completed, but initials reports make for sombre reading

Despite the high-profile names backing HIV/AIDS as an issue, a very large part of the corporate world is still to wake up to it. "35% of respondents did not consider HIV/AIDS to be an area of concern," says Mr Jathar. "31% had a wait-and-watch policy." He stresses that there are positive signs. "Over 60% want to get information on HIV/AIDS, and most people surveyed said they were willing to accept HIV positive people in the workplace." But, the fact remains that so
many years into the epidemic, over half the companies surveyed had no real support for HIV positive workers.

In addition, it should be kept in mind that corporate efforts of whatever kind do not touch on the huge informal workforce. The informal labour in industries ranging from cinema or diamond-cutting to the migrant labour in agro-based industries like sugar are even more at risk than the formal workforce, but HIV/AIDS initiatives here are close to zero and likely to remain that way since no one will take responsibility for them.

Despite this lack of hard data, there's no dearth of anecdotal evidence of the impact the disease is having. Managers like BPCL's Ms Patil who have dealt with the issue are generally frank about the incidence of the disease. "Its becoming increasingly common right across our workforce," says Ms Patil. The problem has always been that the company doesn't know for sure, usually because the employee doesn't either, until they fall sick and go to a company-linked
hospital for a check-up. "We tend to find out at the same time as the employee does," says Ms Patil.

Typically the disease has been thought of as impacting mostly blue-collar workers, but increasingly its hitting managerial levels as well. "Real data is even harder to get in this case, but we are getting reports of more white collar workers who are infected," says Mr Jathar. A welfare officer at a company who asks not to be identified gives the example of a young manager in a regional office who was recently diagnosed as positive - along with his wife and children. Cases like this are why the company, which gave automatic counselling to employees diagnosed positive, now gives it to family members as well.

The situation isn't entirely grim. The increasing number of HIV/AIDS initiatives is encouraging and more organisations like BPCL are now focusing on workplace interventions. Sensitisation programmes, whatever the motives behind them, are proven to have a positive impact. Ms Patil reports that BPCL's programmes have raised awareness of HIV/AIDS to the level that employees are now well aware that its not a highly contagious disease and that there is no threat of working alongside HIV positive employees. "In the few cases we
know, there has been a lot of support given to the employees," she says.

All that needs to change is for companies to add increased emphasis to these efforts by treating them not as welfare initiatives, but ones needed for the company's future. As Mr Jathar says it's just a question of long-term planning. "At the moment its probably true that in the short term HIV/AIDS will not have much of an impact on a company's performance. But in the long run, as the situation becomes worse and rates rise, it is bound to happen. Companies need to start planning for that from today

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